The first inkling I had that robots were more than simply science fiction came in 1979 – it was a TV commercial (see below) for the Fiat Strada which ran for two full minutes and showed the car being assembled by these amazing machines.
Of course, it helped that the ad had been made by Hugh Hudson, the director of Chariots of Fire, and used the theme from Figaro as the soundtrack. Not surprisingly “Campaign,” the magazine of the advertising industry, recorded that it has been “hailed by many as the best commercial ever made”.
What is less well known is that, according to “Campaign”, when Hudson and his team arrived at the Turin factory to shoot the film, they had to run the gauntlet of pickets who were burning tyres in protest at robots taking their jobs.
Fast forward 38 years, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the impact that robots will have on the way we work. And nowhere is that impact likely to be more dramatic over the next few years than in logistics and supply chain.
Only last week, the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, came out in favour of a robot tax. In an interview with the US magazine “Quartz”, he argued that a human worker who did $50,000 worth of work in a factory would pay income tax, social security tax and so on. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
Warehouse work and driving were two areas cited by Gates as fertile ground for the use of robots over the next 20 years.
Gates’s argument is that money raised could be used to slow the spread of automation to a manageable level and fund other types of employment. Governments are always looking for new things to tax, so it should be no surprise if Gates’s prediction comes true.
In fact, European policymakers are already on the case. The European parliament has launched a consultation on Civil Law Rules on Robotics – though it has stopped short of backing a proposal for an immediate robot tax.
So far, the discussion about robots in the supply chain has been focused on the practicalities – what can be achieved and what level of benefit can be achieved.
But, it is clear that as the we get further down the road, the social impact is going to become more of an issue – and one that supply chain professionals will need to take into account.